Something magical happens halfway through the curriculum – my students start to realize it can be interesting. This is because we’re learning about political parties, elections, and the influence of the media. The first thing I present to my classes is the concept of the political spectrum – liberal, conservative, moderate, and the extremes. This year I had my 8th graders participate in one of the oldest activities in the book – debate starter. I posted signs for liberal and conservative on either side of the classroom, and began calling out issues. After reading each side’s platform on the issues, students chose which side they agreed with the most. I am always surprised at their responses – here are the most memorable:
1. On the issue of the military, all of my classes were overwhelmingly conservative. They support a strong military with more government spending on defense initiatives. I informally surveyed to see how many of them are in military families – about 80%.
2. Taxes are always an interesting topic, especially when my students make the connection between tax dollars and welfare programs. 75% of the students at my school are on free/reduced lunch, which means they receive some form of government assistance. On the issue of taxation, they were split in every class almost evenly. Those who took the liberal side argued that it’s the government’s job to help those who cannot afford to help themselves. Those who took the conservative side argued that individuals have the right to keep more of their hard-earned income. In every class, someone chose a side because of a personal circumstance. If I had a dime for every time a story began with “My uncle didn’t get his check last month…”, or “My mom works hard and it’s not fair that her money gets taken away…”
3. Gun Control Laws. I am terrified. 99% of my students agree that everyone should have the right to own and carry a firearm for protection. Nothing wrong with that. Most of them believe it should be mandatory for everyone to carry a weapon because it would make us all safer. One brave student chose the liberal side in one of my classes, arguing that guns are not necessary in a modern society like ours; moreover, she argued that firearms only endanger people more. Many of them did agree that we need more stringent licensing laws and waiting periods for purchasing firearms.
4. Marriage. I could see the anticipation in their eyes leading up to this question: “Do you believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry?” My first observation in every class was that my students were divided almost evenly on this issue. My next observation was that in nearly every class, every student who chose the conservative side on this issue was male. Of those males who chose the conservative side, almost all of them offered a religious reason for their argument. One male spoke up for the conservative side, arguing that “man-on-man is just gross.” Of those who sided with the liberal argument (to allow same-sex unions), nearly all were female. Most of the liberal arguments began with “If two people love each other…” I also learned that three of my students were adopted by lesbian couples, and one has a gay uncle who she believes should have the right to marry.
All in all, I was extremely proud of my students for their participation and their respectfulness during this activity. I think they were also pleasantly surprised at how interesting school could be. At the end of each class, someone would inevitably raise their hand and ask, “What do you believe Mrs. Russ?”
I’ll never tell.